Prologue to the Story to be Named Later, V
The gout of flame that shot from Loccan’s upraised hand obscured the entire top half of the bear-man. The flame-shrouded figure bellowed as he staggered backwards in a stunning reversal of the prior minute. The searing fire lasted just a handful of seconds before vanishing. The big man’s screams lasted longer. Flames flickered and died on the scant remains of his shirt, exposing the blackened flesh that was already splitting with crimson fissures as the man’s arms moved to cover his face. Derud was assaulted by the combined smells of rank burnt hair and cloth with the sweet smell of cooked fat and flesh.
The tavern went still for several heartbeats. Students and workmen alike stood, mouths agape, watching the burning man. Derud knew what should happen next. The locals, frightened by the display of power, would scatter, giving the wizardlings time to escape back to the Tower. In his mind, Derud was already halfway through the Twilight Gate and preparing his report to Merrus and the other Patricians. There would be severe punishments on all of them, and unlike Troius before him, Loccan would likely be turned over to the Baron for secular punishment. As a student and not an established mage, the noble was still subject to the laws of the kingdom. His name and birth would probably be enough to save him from the axe, but Loccan would probably be banished at least.
The pleasant thought of walking the halls of the Academy without Loccan and his cronies to humiliate him vanished from Derud’s mind as, with a roar, the workmen surged onto the students with a fury that they lacked before. Stunned, he watched the numbers of combatants swell by the additions of the other patrons, who up until now had merely cheered on the brawl. Now the student mages were outnumbered two-to-one and giving ground. Derud saw Heruld give way under the weight of three men. One remained, knees on either side of Heruld’s chest, savage fists raining down on the defenseless mage’s face, while the other two moved on to a new target. Derud’s entire field of vision boiled with the struggle, and his feet felt nailed to the floor as he watched hopelessly.
Out of the chaos came a horror that finally moved Derud’s feet. The huge man had stopped screaming and stood. Charred skin ruptured and split as his hands moved from his head. His teeth gleamed sickly white from shrunken lips amidst the blackened ruin of his face. His eyes had burst like overheated eggs from the intense heat of the blast, leaving his empty sockets to stare out at the world. Derud was vaguely aware of the warm stream running down his leg as the man, impossibly, pushed past two members of the scrum and lurched forward. The paralyzed student staggered back, away from the apparition who bore down on Loccan, still recovering himself as he leaned against the wall and unaware of the image of Death approaching him. Derud’s throat worked, choking on a warning to Loccan, unable to make a sound in his terror.
Loccan, perhaps sensing something, looked up in time to scream briefly before a black hand closed around his throat. The young noble was pulled forward, slowly, as if he was given a chance to see his handiwork up close. With a sickening crack Loccan’s head was smashed back into the wall by a sudden extension of the burnt man’s powerful arm. As the student was pulled forward, and Derud could see an actual depression in the stout wood of the wall. Again the eyeless horror slammed Loccan into the wall, and again, and again, until the depression was deeper and dripping crimson. A crushed ruin was all that remained of the back of his head, and the way it lolled at an impossible angle testified to the shattered remains of his neck. With a final smashing blow, the charred remains of the bear-man slumped to its knees, the limp form of Loccan collapsing before it.
The surging melee continued as if Derud was the only witness to the horrifying scene. He managed to stumble forward a step, then another, approaching the unmoving forms of the two adversaries. He looked down at them, oblivious to the stream of people coming through the door behind him. He was only vaguely aware of a loud thunderclap and the smell of ozone, and of the screams around him. He was almost grateful when a rough hand clutched his shoulder and spun his eyes away from the macabre pair. Derud struggled to focus on the face, to hear the words screamed at him, even as the stout wood of an axe handle crashed into his head.